Carbonized papyri from the eruption of Vesuvius deciphered with the help of artificial intelligence

I’m telling you the story of these 2000-year-old papyri that were part of a large collection, discovered by chance in Herculaneum in 1752, in a villa that would have belonged to Lucius Clapurnius Piso Caesonius, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. It is in this house that the only library of the ancient world would have been a priori established, except that all these documents ended up being carbonized in the year 79 AD because of the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius which had covered Herculaneum and Pompeii with lava. So when these papyri were recovered by archaeologists, they were perfectly illegible. Just to give you an idea, they look like pieces of wood! This story has had a certain media impact because there is a big challenge to decipher these documents. Indeed, everything we know about ancient literature is mainly due to the monk copiers of the Middle Ages, except that obviously (and in relation to the fact that they were monks) they refrained from transcribing the texts of the Epicurean authors, who would be overrepresented in the villa’s library.

Resolution of the mystery thanks to artificial intelligence

Since we discovered these documents, researchers have never stopped trying to find solutions to decipher them. Many people have tried to unroll some of these papyri, those that were the least carbonized, but they decomposed in their hands. The rest of the scrolls were left as they were and were preserved in the national libraries of Naples, Paris, Oxford, or London. But in 2019, after 20 years of research on these papyri, American Brent Seals and his team managed to find a method to scan the papyrus in 3D without touching it and to unroll it digitally thanks to a software that analyzes the document layer by layer. At the time, this was already a considerable progress, except that they wanted to go further and really manage to decipher the texts. One of the main difficulties at this stage of the work was related to the ink used on these papyri, there is no metal in it so no chemical analysis was possible to distinguish the text from its support. But after observing the scans very precisely, they noticed that the papyrus cracked slightly differently where the ink had passed.

Following this discovery and in order to considerably advance research, they decided to organize a crowdsourced science competition in collaboration with private investors from the Silicon Valley: The Vesuvius challenge and to win it, it was necessary to translate at least 4 passages of the papyrus of at least 140 characters before the end of the year. The prize money at stake was one million dollars, enough to motivate the troops! The competition was won by 3 young students in their twenties who worked together: Yousseph Nader, a doctoral student in Berlin, Julian Schilliger, a student in robotics in Switzerland, and Luke Farritor, a student in computer science at the University of Kentucky. The latter created an algorithm that allowed him to identify a first word, the word “porphyras” which means in ancient Greek “Purple”. And then, helped by his two other colleagues, he then managed to deduce the text using a system of observation of repetitions. And once the text was obtained in ancient Greek, it was enough for them to translate it into English afterwards!

“What does the text tell us?”

So far, only fragments have been translated. Papyrologists presume that the scribe was Philomene of Gadara, a disciple of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher for whom pleasure exceeded all other values. And one of the deciphered passages is a reflection on how abundance or, on the contrary, scarcity can affect sources of pleasure such as music or food. The author also expresses himself about his opponents, surely the Stoics, who, I quote, “have nothing to say about pleasure, neither in general nor in particular when it comes to defining it.” And then the text also mentions a certain Xenophon, but there we are not sure if it is the famous flute player, or the man we knew because he could not stop laughing…

“The research does not stop there…”

These discoveries could even allow to restart the excavations in Herculaneum, some researchers think that there could still be thousands of texts buried underground. And then these digital techniques discovered will also allow to study other ancient texts on other media such as cartonnage, this recycled papyrus that has often been used with plaster to wrap Egyptian mummies…

“Finally, the Vesuvius challenge is starting again in 2024, this time, it is necessary to be able to read 90% of a roll by the end of the year! But in the meantime, just reaching this point is considered a miracle by the scientists – As if to say! Literature and artificial intelligence can make a very good mix!

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